Tens of thousands of households are behind on their utility bills this year, forcing officials to "strike a balance" between asking people to pay up as deficits pile up and showing compassion for cash-strapped Manitobans amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Data obtained by the Free Press reveals at least 75,557 Manitoba Hydro customers are in arrears for their gas and electric bills — totalling nearly $20 million in late payments this year.
In the meantime, figures from the city show a 118 per cent increase in late water-bill payments compared to the same periods last year. That's about 8,000 Winnipeggers being behind on at least $4.5 million owing.
To curtail such arrears, the province temporarily placed protections against penalties for late payments in April — including moratoriums on tax breaks, interest collection and utility shut-offs.
But as of October, both the City of Winnipeg and Manitoba Hydro are now asking customers to pay up. On top of that, Manitobans could see a nearly three per cent increase on their hydro bill in December, if Hydro gets its proposed rate hike.
That means more customers will likely be left in arrears well into the end of 2020, as heightened pandemic restrictions continue to force several workplaces to cut employee hours — leaving thousands struggling to cover their once-manageable costs of living.
"It's all about finding a balance for Manitobans during these unprecedented times," said Minister of Crown Services Jeff Wharton in a statement Friday.
Wharton said while the province is trying to show compassion where possible, "Hydro is under stress due to reckless commitments by the former NDP government that put Manitobans at risk."
"Rates have increased between two and five per cent each year, which is required to cover rising costs and capital projects," he added, calling the incoming increase in Manitoba Hydro bills "modest."
"It's not like I'm choosing to not pay my bills," said one such minimum-wage worker in the city, who asked the Free Press not to name her so she could speak freely about her experiences. "I just can't afford it right now."
As a barista at a café and a server at a restaurant, she said mandated shutdowns earlier in the year had forced both her workplaces to temporarily lay her off for months before hiring her back in September. Now, she says, her hours are being cut as new restrictions resume amid rising COVID-19 cases in Winnipeg.
"I get anxiety every single day thinking of all the late charges I'm obviously incurring," she said. "But what can I do?"
Mona (not her real name) is also behind on her payments. "I'm literally picking between feeding myself and my two-year-old son, while I try to find a way — any way at all, at this point — to make sure the power stays on when the winter comes," she said.
Both Hydro and the city said their recommendation to customers in arrears is to "pay what they can, as soon as possible."
"Not making any payments will make it harder for customers to get caught up when things return to normal," said Bruce Owen, a spokesperson for Manitoba Hydro. "We'll work with them on a reasonable payment plan."
"Sympathy can only go so long when you're dealing with complicated issues that affect overall municipal operations." – Coun. Brian Mayes, who chairs Winnipeg's committee on water and waste
But NDP leader Wab Kinew says he's skeptical whether that "normal" will ever return for the thousands of customers still behind on their payments.
Even prior to COVID-19, at least 69,685 people were in arrears at one point last year, according to data from Manitoba Hydro, obtained by the Free Press.
Customers with the city and Hydro are notified 10 days after their account is overdue, which is considered in arrears if they have yet to pay 40 days after the original billing date.
"There's a fundamental problem when you look at these kind of numbers and realize that people were already struggling with the Pallister government's way of thinking," said Kinew, adding that "increasing rates during the pandemic is ridiculous."
"The pandemic only highlighted these problems — not just the government's, but also the stark issues for Manitobans who still don't have living wages and are expected to pay these rising costs of living."
But Coun. Brian Mayes, who chairs Winnipeg's committee on water and waste, said "sympathy can only go so long when you're dealing with complicated issues that affect overall municipal operations."
"No one saw this coming and I understand that — it's mass economic uncertainty, it's a pandemic," he said. "At the end of the day though, you can only stop putting up penalties for a certain amount of time. After a while, you have to also think of deficit concerns and the implications of what will happen if people just stop paying their utilities altogether.
"It can't all be chaos."
Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for this Free Press reporting position comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.